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Bulkhead survives contentious battle

on December 16, 2009

Even though the bulkhead isn’t quite here yet, its arrival is all but assured.

After weeks of rancorous debate following a Nov. 17 vote to allot $350,000 for the massive public pool dividing wall, the council on Tuesday voted 5-3 to end debate. The vote affirms the past decision and thwarts a push by opponents to stop the purchase.

The moveable bulkhead will allow The Plunge pool in Point Richmond to be divided in two for separate, simultaneous aquatic activities.  Supporters of the purchase hailed Tuesday’s decision as an economical enhancement of the nearly-restored pool facility, which was closed in 2001.

Opponents responded to the defeat with continuing complaints that the expenditure was wasteful, unnecessary and misappropriated during a time of fiscal constraints and reduced services throughout the city.

“We need to move forward now,” said Bart Hackworth, 42, one of at least a dozen people who addressed the council in support of the bulkhead. “(The bulkhead) will broaden the use of the Plunge.”

In addition to allowing dual use of the pool, which is set to reopen next year, installation will increase residents’ visits, supporters of the bulkhead argued.

Councilman Tom Butt, a staunch supporter of the purchase who delivered a presentation in its defense – often over the heckles of residents in attendance – cited a consulting firm’s estimate that the divider could generate annual revenue gains of $40,000 to $66,000 though increased usage.

“It could easily pay for itself in a short period of time, maybe 5 years,” Butt said.

Opponents disagreed. In addition to questions about the bulkhead’s effectiveness, many questioned how the council could allocate $350,000 on a non-essential item while core services like police, fire and parks face continued budget cuts.

“We must prioritize our funds, and a bulkhead is not a priority,” Texanita Bluitt, 60, told the council. Bluitt also said that public safety cuts are having direct impacts on poorer neighborhoods, a sentiment that was echoed several times by other speakers.

“We need to use this money in other ways,” said 65-year-old Kokoye Sande. “How can we justify this (purchase)?”

The meeting was often raucous and was standing room only, with more than 150 people packed into the council chambers. Councilmembers were repeatedly shouted down while speaking. Some audience members exchanged sharp words and cross stares.

The divisions among attendees fell broadly along racial and geographic lines. The majority of bulkhead supporters were white residents in the Point Richmond area where The Plunge is located, a neighborhood more affluent on average than the rest of the city.

In another tense council meeting on Dec. 1, dozens of children from area soccer leagues held up signs in protest of the bulkhead. They alleged that area parks have fallen into disrepair due to budget cuts while the council considers financing the $350,000 bulkhead.

Most of the opponents who spoke were black or Latino and lived in other neighborhoods throughout the city.

The battle over whether to purchase the bulkhead had devolved into a geographic tug of war to bring scarce dollars to communities, Sande said.

“It’s us against them,” Sande said. “Those who live near the plunge, and those who don’t.”

Butt tried to quell neighborhood tensions. During his Power Point-assisted presentation, Butt used maps created by Richmond Confidential to show the location of local homicides. He noted that The Plunge was the closest pool to some of the crime hot spots.

Butt has often argued that poor and minority residents in the “Iron Triangle,” a high crime sector of the city, would benefit greatly from the installation of a bulkhead. That claim is questioned by opponents, who counter that the biggest beneficiaries would be seniors and competitive swimmers in Point Richmond.

The three votes in favor of further scrutinizing the bulkhead purchase were Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and councilmembers Jim Rogers and Nathanial Bates. Bates was the lone vote against the purchase on Nov. 17, a meeting which McLaughlin did not attend. Rogers voted for the bulkhead on Nov. 17, but pulled back his previous support, which he said was based on scant technical information supplied by city staff.

City Manager Bill Lindsay recommended against the installation of the bulkhead on Nov. 17, saying there were risks due to untested modifications in the installation plans.

On Tuesday, Bates called on Parks and Recreation Director Keith Jabari to address the council. Jabari said repeatedly that he did not oppose the bulkhead, but questioned its usefulness.

“We don’t see that it’s going to enhance anything that we’re able to do,” Jabari said.

City Engineer Rich Davidson said he was ready to mobilize contractors to install the stainless steel bulkhead, which he said would be brought into the indoor pool in pieces through still unfinished double-doors. When questioned by the council, Davidson said the project could potentially run up to $390,000.

Funding for the project will come from $1.9 million in city reserves. The council opted to use the city reserve money to reimburse redevelopment funds, which were borrowed for the city’s civic center project.

Bulkhead supporters said they were hopeful the wounds would heal and the bulkhead would be installed for the Plunge’s reopening next year.

“It’s interesting that this is the issue that has divided the community,” said Councilman Jeff Ritterman. “I’m going to continue to support the bulkhead. I want the best pool for Richmond.”

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